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Theatres of war

For five minutes or 20 ? depending on whether you?ve been unconvinced or not by the arguments cited by the Bush administration for invading Iraq ? try and forget why you oppose or support the war.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2003 21:27 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra

For five minutes or 20 — depending on whether you’ve been unconvinced or not by the arguments cited by the Bush administration for invading Iraq — try and forget why you oppose or support the war. Much will continue to be written along that frontline, despite the fact that no matter what you read or hear, you are very unlikely to change your position on the matter now.

Instead, let’s move on to the subject of the unprecedented images of war that television viewers are now spectators to. A slew of disturbing visuals has led some to coin the term ‘war porno’ — more of a moral tag than a real description. But it can’t be denied that as the war is piped live into households, TV viewers have been left shocked and awestruck (dictionary meaning: filled by an emotion compounded of dread and wonder) at being transported up-close and personal to the theatre of war.

Like the previous conflict in Iraq 12 years ago, this one, too, is being viewed in near real-time. Unlike Gulf War I, however, the images and news relating to the conflict are continuous, ready for viewing whenever you are. So the priority is not so much whether one gets the bigger and ‘correct’ picture (which only healthy intervals in between the minutiae of action can hope to provide) but whether one gets ‘fresh feed’ — warts, misinformation, disinformation, incomplete data, retractions, rumours and all. In other words, TV audiences sitting thousands of miles away from the war zone are left unprotected from a new kind of war-fog. So it’s no surprise that war-visuals fatigue is creeping in.

The confusion created out of the various images (many times conflicting) reflects how war really unravels — a far cry from the drama of, say, Platoon. When we see American soldiers whooping with joy after destroying an Iraqi position in Umm Qasr, we believe that in that sub-conflict, the Americans are winning. Then after an hour, when we hear a Doubting Thomas (odds are that he’s a BBC journalist) questioning the ‘coalition forces’ having ‘secured’ the town, we get an altogether different picture.

Following the war in this manner is different from being bamboozled by the spin and counter-spin that flies out of different TV channels. If you saw Iraqis in Basra celebrating in front of coalition forces, it’s either CNN or Fox that you’re watching. If you see the people in the same town somberly lining up for water, you’re probably watching images from Al Jazeera on BBC. But the sheer pace of unfolding events leaves a different trail of confusion behind. Viewers end up seeing war as a game in which only the score is to be followed.

Last Sunday, when the Austral-ian cricket team was piling up runs against the Indians in the World Cup final on Set Max, the BBC images from Umm Qasr provided an alternate source of score-keeping. The live ‘ball-by-ball’ coverage of sniper exchange, night bombings, parallel narratives of press briefings, expert analyses and interviews left the viewer excitedly puzzled. This isn’t only because he’s been getting conflicting information or analyses, but also because the rate of information-as-it-comes being flushed into his system has been too quick and unfiltered.

Imagine a soldier being asked whether his division is meeting any resistance at 12 o’clock. He says no. The journalist relays this message to the TV viewer. Two hours later, the same journalist reports back that there is indeed news of heavy resistance. This is not an

old-fashioned retraction. It is simply a case of the situation having changed from 12 pm to 1 pm and the TV viewer being taken in tow with the changing tide of information. In effect, with information atomised into the smallest of intervals having no time to ‘cool and harden’, the bigger picture — the scorecard, if you will — that the general viewer is really interested in becomes a shimmering swirl that refuses to take any shape.

What adds to the confusion is a paradox. Reality TV, which is what television war coverage really is, has its aesthetic moorings in non-documentary films. So TV viewers watching a group of night vision-bathed Marines shooting their target in Nasiriyah will — however odious some of us might find the comparison once we consciously start thinking about it — compare the image with a sequence from, say, Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down, a film which is, in turn, based on the very real battle between American soldiers and Somalian warlords in 1993.

Is it so surprising (and despicable, as some suggest) that TV viewers end up comparing a real war with pretend-wars? For most people — and this is not applicable to the many who live in the real war zones of West Asia or Africa — movies provide the only yardstick to measure a real war.

Just before the ongoing war in Iraq, young American soldiers in camps in Kuwait reportedly watched war movies (ironically, they’re supposed to be ‘anti-war’ movies) like We Were Soldiers, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now for inspiration. This was a strange piece of news: first-time soldiers preparing to imitate art that imitates life — and death.

Iconic images of war have been fundamentally different from any of the visuals that this war has thrown up till date. Eddie Adams’ series of black and white photographs showing a Saigon police chief shooting a Viet Cong captain pointblank in the head stunned Americans in 1968 and turned the tide of popular opinion against the Vietnam War. Similarly, Robert Capa’s famous photograph capturing the exact moment a bullet kills a Republican militiaman during the Spanish Civil War is another visual that is stashed with potent narrative. (One wonders what the reaction of TV viewers will be if they are to witness — live — something like that during this war.)

The updated-since-the-last-update visuals of the ongoing war lacks the running thread that tells ‘the story’. Part of this vacuum is filled up by commentary — hardly of the same narrative class that a rich-in-details and as-close-to-the-real-thing that, say, Saving Private Ryan is. But real war — and one is not even talking about the fundamental difference of ‘pretend deaths’ and ‘real deaths’ — is never a Spielberg film.

All this is, of course, besides the point for most people watching the war on Arab TV channels. For them, the yardstick isn’t Lawrence of Arabia or Band of Brothers. Al Jazeera viewers are used to seeing images that are far more disturbing than those shown in the most ‘realistic’ Hollywood war movies — never mind ‘real war visuals’ aired on western TV channels. Unlike Americans — who, incidentally, last witnessed a real war in their backyard during their Civil War — their counterparts sitting in Baghdad don’t need make-believe models to compare with their war coverage.

The second sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket — a film which coolly shows the systematic dehumanisation required to turn men into killing machines — follows a recruit, a (embedded?) reporter for the newspaper Stars and Stripes, who finds himself fighting in the Vietnam War.

While preparing for the movie, Kubrick had studied gun and military hardware magazines and followed the war on TV and radio. He told a journalist in 1968: “It’s great that anything that goes on long enough that’s terrible and comes into the living room every night in vivid, sync-sound-dialogue newsreel form makes a big impression on people. It will produce a more active body politic.” A few months later, on being asked whether he was glad that American troops may be getting out of Vietnam, Kubrick — remember, the maker of a classic ‘anti-war’ film — simply and almost ruefully replied: “Sure.” An end to the coverage of the Iraq war — and thus an end to the war itself — may elicit a similar response from many of us ‘concerned’ viewers.

First Published: Mar 29, 2003 03:10 IST